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Opportunity To Get It Right For Veterans

Guest column submitted by U.S. Senator Mike Crapo

While living in a state as vast as Idaho has immeasurable benefits, veterans living in rural Idaho communities must travel great distances to access needed medical services.  Last summer, Congress passed legislation establishing the Veterans Choice Program following reports of veterans having difficulty accessing care.  Through the program, veterans who experience a significant appointment scheduling delay or who have to travel more than 40 miles to receive U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) care have the option of receiving health care at local, non-VA facilities.  Unfortunately, this program is not working the way it should for Idaho's veterans, and the problems must be addressed. 

Idahoans have contacted me to share two specific problems:

  • The VA defines 40-miles as the crow flies.  Idahoans living in mountainous areas frequently live within a forty-mile radius of a VA facility but must drive more than 40 miles to reach the facility. 
  • Despite congressional intent, the VA is making it very difficult for veterans to participate in the Choice Program when they require care not available at the closest VA facility.  As an example, a veteran living near a Community Based Outpatient Clinic may not be eligible for the Choice Program and would be required to travel long distances for surgery at another VA facility.  This is unacceptable. 

These problems must be fixed and fixed quickly to improve access to care as Congress intended.  In January 2015, I co-sponsored S. 207, the Veterans Access to Community Care Act of 2015.  This bipartisan legislation requires the VA to provide health care at non-VA facilities to veterans who live more than 40 miles driving distance from the closest VA medical facility that furnishes the care sought by the veteran.  This legislation will solve both problems experienced by Idahoans:  It requires the VA to consider distance by driving miles and it begins measuring the 40-mile distance from the nearest facility that provides the service needed by the veteran rather than the closest VA facility in general. 

In February 2015, the President submitted his budget request for the VA and asked that Congress allow the agency to move the funds for the Veteran Choice Program into other VA accounts.  This request is tone-deaf at best given that the VA argues one of the reasons it cannot administer the Veterans Choice as Congress intended is lack of funding. 

As a result of this request and my continued concerns over the implementation of the Veterans Choice program, I joined 41 of my Senate colleagues in writing VA Secretary Robert McDonald.  In our letter, we urge Secretary McDonald to act quickly to address these issues and implement the program as Congress intended.  We wrote, "Given the clear intent of Congress to reduce barriers to care, it is perplexing that the VA is not using its authority to allow non-VA care for those who face a geographic challenge in accessing care, including long drive time or health conditions that make travel difficult.  The impact of such an interpretation is to exclude from the program many of the veterans for whom Congress aimed to make health care more accessible." 

The Administration has the opportunity to improve access to health care and get it right for America's veterans.  I will continue to press for needed changes to ensure that Idaho veterans can access the services they so greatly deserve. 

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